Spanish Doubloons & Mormon Gold / Mormon Coins Supplant the Bartering System

Hal Schindler
Published: 03/26/1995 Category: Features Page: J1

With 10,000 or so Mormons populating the Great Salt Lake Valley and neighboring settlements by summer of 1849 and with more on the road, the need for some sort of hard cash in the economy was acute. The barter system had worked for a while, but as more members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints heeded the call to gather in their new mountain home, the principle of “What have you?” and “What do you need?” began to wear thin.

According to historian J. Cecil Alter, Brigham Young, while sojourning in Winter Quarters that first winter, remembered how the boys in the valley were wearing out their pockets reaching for money they did not have and brought with him on his return in September 1848 about $84 in small change. But in a burgeoning population, that was chicken feed and disappeared in the crowd as if it had never been.

An effort was made in December 1848 to circulate paper money, using handwritten scrip signed by Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball with Thomas Bullock, clerk, as a countersignee. The scrip was issued in $1 and $5 denominations backed by gold dust, which was prevalent in the valley, but awkward and inexact in common use. (A pinch of dust varied from thumb to thumb.) After several other attempts, including the re-issue of Kirtland Safety Society anti-Banking notes from the church’s failed venture in organizing an Ohio bank, Brigham gave up on paper currency. What was needed was coin.

The first solid money showed up in Great Salt Lake Valley in December 1847 after Young had left for Winter Quarters to prepare the rest of the Saints for the journey to Utah the following spring. Captain James Brown had ridden into the valley from San Francisco, his saddlebags heavy with Spanish doubloons–back pay owed the Pueblo Detachment of the Mormon Battalion.

The precise sum is a matter of debate, church records have it ranging from $5,000 to $10,000. But whatever the amount, the doubloons, probably coins of 8-escudo denomination ($20 U.S. value), had been paid by the U.S. Army paymaster to Brown, who held powers of attorney from the Pueblo veterans. Depending on the sum involved, Brown would have had from 250 to 500 of the Spanish coins in his pouches.

These gold escudos (worth today on the numismatic market about $500 in good condition) were readily accepted by Americans. With approval of the Mormon High Council in Brigham’s absence, Brown spent $2,000 to buy Fort Buenaventura from Miles Goodyear; the balance is said to have gone to Battalion members. Still, the reluctance of travelers to accept Mormon scrip or Kirtland Bank notes as legitimate money continued to be a problem.

As J. Cecil Alter explained it, “To those who knew the sound of his voice, Brigham Young’s signature made the new money legal tender by common consent.” But with transients, who from 1849 became an important segment of the population–at least in summer–it was a different matter entirely. They were moving onward and would carry the money into a land that knew not Joseph Smith’s successor, consequently immigrants not only paid out good money for what they bought, but demanded money they could use in California and Oregon in exchange for wagons, livestock, groceries, clothing, tools and implements they sold in the valley. And, Alter pointed out, that not only threatened depletion of the meager supply of U.S. money but of the gold dust deposits held in security as backing for the paper money issued.

It was imperative that a coin be struck that in itself was intrinsically worth the amount claimed on its face, which would be acceptable and usable by Mormon residents, Mormons abroad and by non-Mormons in Great Salt Lake City and elsewhere. With the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill early in 1848, gold dust was finding its way into the Mormon economy in increasing amounts. There are numerous cases of Mormons paying their church tithing in gold dust (at $15 an ounce). This “church treasure,” as Alter describes it, was to be melted and rolled into strips from which coins could be stamped.

The extent to which Mormon authorities had concerned themselves with the situation is evident in a letter from Brigham Young to Thomas (Peg-Leg) Smith, who ran a trading post in the Bear River Valley. “[I] understand that you have a desire to dispose of your establishment, cattle, stock, &c. now in the Bear River Valley,” Young wrote, “I send herewith Mr. Lewis Robison, a friend of mine, who is fully authorized to treat with and make suitable arrangements for pay, transfer of property, &c. Whatever arrangements he may make in regard to the pay, you may consider me responsible for the amount.

The coined money, I have now not on hand, but we are preparing to put the gold dust into coin without an alloy, which if you are disposed to take, you can have–but if you choose the American-coined money we can probably get it by the time you want it. If not, it will probably save me some little trouble.” All that remained in the planning process was for Young to order the design of such coins and create the dies to stamp them with.

Part of that task took place November 25, 1848, when Brigham Young, with John Taylor and John M. Kay, sketched out the coin designs and decided upon inscriptions for them. Alfred B. Lambson forged the dies, the punches, tools and collars; Robert L. Campbell engraved the first stamps for the coins; a drop hammer was forged by Martin H. Peck, John Kay engraved the dies and minted the coins. William Clayton and Thomas Bullock acted as accountant and weigher, respectively.

Originally, the plan was to mint $2 1/2, $5, $10 and $20 gold pieces, and while this ultimately was done, the $10 coin was the first struck; with twenty-five minted the first day. The first design called for an obverse with the motto Holiness to the Lord and an emblem of the priesthood–a three-pointed Phrygian crown over an All-Seeing Eye of Jehovah. On the reverse, the $2 1/2, $5 and $20 coins were inscribed G.S.L.C. P.G. (Great Salt Lake City Pure Gold) over two clasped hands symbolizing friendship, then the value and the year date.

The $10 coin bore the words Pure Gold on its reverse, rather than the initialed phrase. This was altered in later coins so the obverse inscription would read Deseret Assay Office, Pure Gold and, at the base, 5 D. On the reverse side was a crouched lion, surrounded by Holiness to the Lord written in Deseret Alphabet characters, then the year 1860. The coins were .899 fine, with a bit of native silver, but no other alloy, for strength. Most of the coins bore the date 1849, but a great many were issued in 1850 and later.

With hard cash a reality, Daniel H. Wells and Thomas Bullock spent September 10, 1849, destroying the Mormon paper currency. “They tore up and burned between $3,000 and $4,000,” according to church records. When the coins were first circulated in St. Louis by Salt Lake merchants who used them to pay for merchandise, the $20 were accepted at $18 because of the touch of silver alloy. In the valley, however, the coins went for face value.

But over the long account, the Mormon minters had the last laugh, because the numismatic value of these golden treasures are worth many fold what the Saints asked for them. (A $20 1849 Mormon gold piece, for example, is valued at between $25,000 and $50,000, according to Alvin Rust’s Mormon and Utah Coin and Currency.)

The day of the Mormon coiners came to an effective close when the new San Francisco Mint went into operation in 1854, producing U.S. gold and silver hard money by the bagsful daily. The last Mormon gold was minted in 1860.